Thursday, November 18, 2010

The History of Appalachia, One Bean at a Time

We took nearly every wrong turn on the way there; of the four turns it takes to get from the center of Berea to the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, otherwise known as Bill Best's house, three we took were incorrect. What should have been a fifteen minute drive was thirty, but they were hilarious misturns, full of slaphappy laughter and a joyful disregard for time. Being tucked in the rolling hills of Kentucky on a clear gold and blue autumn day makes it hard to feel anything but pleasure.

When we finally got close to Best's home, we could see the mountain at the end of the narrow valley wore a dark forest-smoke top hat. We rolled up to the front of the house anyway, parked the car, and walked toward the front door. While I was the one of the three of us who instigated this mission, I still felt a bit awkward. I was about to knock on the door of someone who I deeply admire and who I'm still surprised I had a chance to meet. But before we got to the door, Bill Best came around the corner, greeted us, and welcomed us into his home.

Who is this guy with whom I'm so enamored? He's the first person to ever receive a PhD in Appalachian studies, and a former professor of Appalachian studies at Berea College. (As a sidenote, Berea College in itself fascinates me. It predates the Civil War, and from its inception, offered equal, integrated education to both black and white students. It's historic motto, "God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth" still informs the decisions the college makes. Having only seen it from the outside, but still able to see the diversity and art this college cultivates, the healthy and happy town this college supports, I know I need to go back there.) He's the author of several books and is writing another on Appalachian beans and tomatoes. Informed by the way his family in mountainous North Carolina grew their own foods, saving seeds of the most productive and flavorful of their crops, he became more and more disgusted by the directions agriculture took in the 1960s. As a result, Best began to explore the seedsaving history of Appalachia, and later, founded the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. At the center, he's collected beans from throughout Appalachia, over 300 varieties so far. He's discovered that every mountain valley has a bean that hails from it, a bean with a history and a heritage. He has theories about the background of greasy beans, the legendary satiny, "fuzzless" varieties found in the rural South—he argues that they stem from a very old Cherokee variety. He also argues that the genetic material so carefully preserved through the history of Appalachia deserves saving. And, at 79, he's still going strong, telling us before we left that he may have to go fight the fire. Yup, he was gearing up to fight a mountain fire.

But when we first arrived, he was in no hurry to leave. As we entered his house, he introduced us to Rimbaud, his black cat that would already be huge even if he weren't fat, but since he was fat, he fit solidly in the class of gargantuan. We sat in his living room, and he told us about his house, a house his wife designed in the 70s and that he and two workmen built. It's a solid yet sky-scraping A-frame with a fireplace that runs up to the tippy-top of the living room ceiling. Building it out of fossil-ridden limestone, Best created the fireplace himself, tucking lucky-find arrowheads into the masonry.

After he let us in, he went to fetch from the freezer—for long-term storage—the seeds I had emailed him about purchasing. He came back with six bags of carefully packaged beans. Here is what I purchased and what I learned about each:
  • Rose Bean: From the Rose family of Madison County, KY, this bean is a pole bean, good for green or dry, with gorgeous feather-speckled seeds. This is one of the prettiest dry beans I've seen. They even made my husband oooh and aaaah.
  • Frank Barnett Cut-Short: "A mutant bean from the River Bean of Ed Meece of Somerset, Kentucky, this cut-short is a true breeding deep beige bean. Grown originally by Frank Barnett of Georgetown, Kentucky, this bean is a good producer and a very flavorful and tender bean" (
  • Pink Tip Greasy: "One of many pink tip varieties of beans, this is the only pink tip greasy bean that I know of. From the Bethel area of Haywood County, NC, this white-seeded bean is excellent for many uses" (
  • Striped Hull Greasy Cut-Short: "From Jackson County, Kentucky, this is a tightly packed greasy cut-short with white seeds. Many hulls have light green streaks on them" (
  • Partridge Head Bean: "This bean is widely grown in the South-Central part of Kentucky and in the Cumberland Plateau area of Tennessee. It is used as a green bean, as a canning bean, and as a shelly bean. It is especially popular in Clinton County, KY where almost everyone grows it" ( To me, the seed looks like a smaller version of a pinto.
  • Pete Ingram Fall Bean: This, I have to admit, is the one I'm most excited about. It comes from the grouping of "fall beans" that folks in Appalachia have grown for autumn harvest for generations and generations. It's a blood red, round bean, good for dry. About it, Best writes "From Pete Ingram in Indiana but originally from Eastern Kentucky, this fall bean is a deep red color. It is a climbing bean with an excellent flavor" ( I have a feeling that this will produce well for me with a beginning-of-September planting.
So I bought the bean seeds and a packet of Vinson Watts tomato seeds, my friend bought another package of Vinson Watts seeds, and we sat and chatted for a spell. The smoke plume on the other side of the mountain loomed large though, and Best worried he'd have to protect his farm that reached to the top of the ridge behind the house he built. We left the house, thanking him profusely, leaving Rimbaud very well-petted. I felt rich with history and food and potential.

We couldn't wave as we drove away, for Bill Best was turned away from us, glaring down the fire at the end of the valley. Part of his treasure drove away with me, safe from a Kentucky wildfire; it hopped on a plane and ended up here, ready to bring a bit of Appalachia to Altadena come next planting season.

Seeds. There are no better souvenirs.


Anonymous said...

My parents went to Berea College - it was one of the first integrated schools south of the Mason Dixon and everyone who goes gets a full ride. There are maximum income caps. Lots of first-generation college graduates come out of there...just like my parents.

Susan C said...

Food always tastes better when it has a history. Great story!

ann said...

None. There is literally no better souvenir than seeds, and in my humble opinion, bean seeds are the best. What a lovely story!

Christina said...

Anonymous: It is a fascinating place. The more I learn about it, the more I am drawn to it. It sounds like it has had a lasting impact on your family.

Susan C: Thanks. And yes, I agree. Storied foods taste fantastic!

Ann: I can't wait to share these guys with you. I've got to grow them a year, but then there will be some greasy beans with your name on it.

Sarah Heller said...

Next time I'll have a compass and a telescope... a coon skin cap would look cute too!

Great, great day.

Christina said...

Sarah: A coonskin cap is definitely in order. Seriously though--sharing the day with you made a great day magical. You rock, woman.

Pearlie from Ohio said...

I found out about Bill Best from an article about him in Mother Earth Magazine several years ago. I have purchased seeds from him for several years now and given many of them away. My roots are in Appalachia (Eastern Ky), and I am an avid backyard gardener. I have loved all the beans that we have grown from him. He has inspired me and having recently retired last year, I have enrolled at our local community (yes, at my age) for a degree in Appalachian Studies. My hat is off to Mr. Best.